Whether you’re an old hand in the kitchen or you’re trying to get into cooking from home more often, a good cookbook that can teach you the basics—and get you familiar with some great recipes—can be extremely valuable. This week, we’re looking at five of the best, based on your nominations.
Earlier in the week we asked you which cookbooks you thought were the best, especially for beginners. Whether they were safe for newbies in the kitchen, tomes that everyone should have, or just chock full of good recipes and up-to-date advice, you had tons of suggestions. We only have room for the top five though, and here they are, in no particular order:
Alton Brown is a man who needs no introduction, especially for those of us toiling away in home kitchens looking to capture the essence of great cooking without spending too much time, energy, or money in the kitchen. His recipes are smart, his explanations are based in science and good logic, and his goal is to help people get in the kitchen and make great food while learning all about the things they’re making in the process. All of that shines through in I’m Just Here for the Food, one of his earlier books (and full disclosure, sitting on my desk right now.) Alton’s doesn’t just teach you how to cook—he teaches you how cooking works. He explains the principles behind frying, baking, searing, grilling, and more while simultaneously showing you how to make some of his favorite dishes—and yours. He explains how solids can behave like liquids, why frying food doesn’t always have to be greasy, how baked goods get fluffy, and more. If you’re interested in learning not just how to cook, but the science behind cooking, it’s a must-have in your kitchen. You can grab a hardcover from Amazon for $ 26, or the Kindle version for $ 20.
Those of you who nominated I’m Just Here for the Food similarly credited Alton Brown for popularizing the whole cooking-as-science movement, and bringing good food and great recipes to people in an understandable, approachable way both with his show, Good Eats, and his book. You praised it for being more than a cookbook—for being an educational tome that also shows you how food gets made, what flavors go well together, how you can develop flavors, and for giving you great easy examples you can follow at home, regardless of your cooking skill level. You can read more in the nomination threads here, here, and here.
Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is available in many forms—the cookbook, a web site, and even a mobile app for iOS devices. All versions and flavors are packed full of great recipes and brilliant photos and illustrations that show you how to make the dishes in the book. While there are additional How to Cook Everything books, including one that covers some more basic tenets of cooking and others that focus on faster dishes, the original book really will show you how to cook anything—not because it’s particularly stuff with recipes, but because the recipes that he uses in the book are so instructive that once you understand how they work, you’ll be able to make just about everything. Like most of the books here, Bittman doesn’t just explain how to make specific recipes, but how to cook, and how cooking works. You’ll learn the techniques required to make each of the dishes he describes, which is infinitely useful for beginners in the kitchen—so if you’re worried that making a stew sounds like too much for you, you’ll learn how to dice first, how to simmer, what constitutes low heat, and so on, all while you cook something that will hopefully be a crowdpleaser at the dinner table. Best of all, Bittman includes variations and options on each dish and technique so you can customize it and tweak the flavors to suit your personal tastes. You can pick up a copy for $ 20 from Amazon, for either the hardcover or the Kindle version.
Those of you who nominated How to Cook Everything praised it for transforming the way you cook. Some of you mentioned that it’s the cookbook you most often refer to today, others pointed out that it’s what took you from making boxed meals with instructions on the back to real, wholesome food for you and your families. Many of you praised Bittman’s writing style, which is accessible to novice cooks and doesn’t get tangled up in complicated cooking jargon that you’ll have to look up just to make something in the book. Some of you pointed out that you’ll find recipes that are probably familiar to you in the book—which is a good thing, since you’ll quickly learn to master some of your favorite dishes, and you’ll learn to improve the things you may already know how to make. You can read more testimonials in this nomination thread, or this one, or this one, or even this one here.
The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook is one of those books you may already have in your bookshelf. It’s been in print since 1930, and has been a household staple in many, many kitchens. Odds are if you don’t have one, your parents or grandparents just might. The book starts you with the basics, like explaining different cuts of meat, different edible parts of vegetables and how they’re best prepared, and more, all with tons of great recipes and tutorials that have been continually updated over the years (and over the past 15 editions) with modern cooking techniques and recipes that cover everything from cooking a Thanksgiving turkey to making awesome fish tacos. Even the binding of the book—heavy paper in plastic comb ring binding—is designed to stay in the kitchen with you while you cook. There are tons of photos to get you inspired, and ideas to personalize those dishes for you and your family. If you want a copy, you can snag the most recent edition from Amazon for $ 16.
Those of you who nominated the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook praised it for being the ultimate practical guide to cooking for beginners, and a reference tome for people who have been in the kitchen a while and want some inspiration—or want to know how to make something new. A few of you mentioned that it’s great at covering the basics, like different types of pastas and which sauces go well with them, different cuts of meat from different animals and how to prepare (or preserve) them, and more. You can read more in its nomination thread here or here.
The Joy of Cooking is another one of those seminal cookbooks that’s probably in everyone’s kitchen, and if it’s not in yours, we can guarantee it’s in your parents’ and grandparents’ kitchens. Initially published (self-published, no less) in 1931, the book has subsequently become a must-have cookbook for both home and professional cooks. You’ll find it on shelves just about everywhere, and even though it’s a well regarded text, you can even browse its web site or download the iOS app if you prefer more digital cooking references. The book is an almost encyclopaedic tome of recipes and information for anyone looking to stock and prep a kitchen or learn to cook just about anything under the sun. There are recipes old and new, as well as chapters on what exactly constitutes pantry “staples,” or how curing and preserving meat works, and more. It’s worth pointing out that this is a bit of an old school cookbook too—there’s plenty of narration, but it’s not out to tell you a story or teach you the principles behind cooking. It’s a bit of a textbook, and one you can always refer to later if you want to know how to make something, or need a baseline recipe to work with. If you’d like a copy, the 75th Anniversary Edition is available for $ 24 at Amazon.
In its nomination thread (which, full disclosure, I started because I also have this book on my desk) many of you echoed the fact that it’s a must-have for just about any kitchen, and for cooks of all skill levels. Some of you pointed out that it may be too advanced for beginner cooks, or too encyclopaedic for the novice just learning their way in the kitchen, but others of you pointed out that even if it’s a bit over some people’s heads, it’ll show them the right way to make tons of dishes and give them a solid orientation to their kitchen and all of the possibilities in it. Many of you shared which version or edition of The Joy of Cooking you personally preferred, whether it’s the 75th Anniversary edition that’s commonly available now, or the 1991 edition that was largely rewritten. The story of the book itself is worth reading all about, right after you check out the nomination thread, here.
Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking is another book that doesn’t just teach you how to cook something, it teaches you about cooking, how to cook well, and the science behind how cooking works. You’ll learn all about how high heat develops flavors, you’ll learn the mechanisms behind slow cooking methods like braising, and you’ll dispel myths about cooking (like “searing in juices, for example”) in the process. There are tons of recipes too, each of which have been tested and vetted by the team at America’s Test Kitchen, and each one illustrating specific points in the book. As you walk through each major point about food science (and why you should care about it in the context of making great food), you’ll get tons of recipes that you’ll be able to use to put your new skills to the test making awesome food. The book packs hundreds of classic Cook’s Illustrated recipes too, so even if you’re already familiar with the processes that make good food good, you’ll be able to use the book as a reference. We’ve even featured a number of videos and tutorials from the book here at Lifehacker in the past. If you want a copy, you can grab one from Amazon in Kindle or hardcover for $ 20.
Those of you who nominated The Science of Good Cooking (full disclosure, this was another of my nominations, because this book, also, is on my desk) praised it for not just teaching you recipes, but teaching you what makes food good and how to make good food, whatever you wind up cooking. It’s not the simplest cookbook, but if you’re interested in cooking-as-chemistry and the science behind making food delicious, it’s a must-have. Those of you who supported its nomination pointed out that it’s great specifically because of that reason, and that the more you use it the more familiar you’ll be with cooking in general. You can read more in its nomination thread here.
Now that you’ve seen the top five, it’s time to put them to an all-out vote to decide the community favorite:
This week’s honorable mentions go out to The Betty Crocker Cookbook ($ 15), a great reference book of over 1500 recipes that range from simple, easy to make recipes with ingredients you can get anywhere to gourmet, super-impressive dishes that will wow a dinner party or make a holiday dinner. There are even chapters on canning, pickling, and preserving your own food, and unlike older iterations of the book, the recipes don’t require you go out and buy a bunch of pre-packaged foods in order to make them. Check out the nomination thread here or this one here for more.
Also worth a mention is The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook ($ 20), a book that I would have nominated myself (but I can’t nominate all of my cookbooks) because it brings together some of the best recipes, all tested and vetted by the folks at Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen, into one thick reference tome that will help you make just about anything you want to make. Need to make Thanksgiving dinner? This book will show you. Want an easy weeknight casserole or pasta bake you can make in a half-hour, sure, there’s that too. It’s extremely useful, and the beautiful hardcover is about 20 bucks.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favorite, even if it wasn’t included in the list? Remember, the top five are based on your most popular nominations from the call for contenders thread from earlier in the week. Don’t just complain about the top five, let us know what your preferred alternative is—and make your case for it—in the discussions below.
The Hive Five is based on reader nominations. As with most Hive Five posts, if your favorite was left out, it didn’t get the nominations required in the call for contenders post to make the top five. We understand it’s a bit of a popularity contest. Have a suggestion for the Hive Five? Send us an email at [email protected]!
Title photo by Tim Sackton.